Blogging and blooks: Communal authorship in a contemporary context

Staci Stutsman

Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The motivations behind the evolution of the blog to book vary from economic aspirations to a need for further fame to editors seizing an opportunity of publishing an author with a ready-made audience. I argue another motivation may be at work: blogging authors may view the switch into the less fluid medium of the print text as an attempt to reassert authorial control.

[0.2] Keywords—Barthes; Fulda; Interactivity; New media; Powell

Stutsman, Staci. 2012. "Blogging and Blooks: Communal Authorship in a Contemporary Context." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 11.

1. Introduction

[1.1] While authors typically use an acknowledgments page to thank their family and friends, editors, and role models for their support, weight loss blogger and author Jennette Fulda uses her acknowledgments page to pay tribute to the readers of her popular blog, "Half of Me." Fulda's blog readers did more than just support her writing, though. They were a part of it. They interacted with her daily posts, they gave her immediate feedback, they brainstormed ideas for the book—they were a part of the writing process itself. Technological developments have resulted in the proliferation of a forum that thrives on collaborative contribution. This emphasis on communal writing grants readers a degree of authority over a text, and while this process raises readers to a position of power, the author's role becomes unclear. This ambiguity carries over even after authors move their writing out of the blogosphere. The presence of Fulda's blog readers gets woven throughout the entire memoir as a felt influence that grants authority to the blog reader, creates a literal representation of communal authorship, and, most significantly, potentially detracts from the author's power over the text. Clearly, the influence of blog readers, both on Fulda's book and on other blogs that become books, cannot be ignored. In an increasingly digital world that is predicated on interactivity, it becomes important to analyze the status of authorship in our new contemporary context.

[1.2] The impact of blog readers problematizes the notion of authorship as the writing process transforms into an overtly collective experience. While anxieties related to authorial power are not usually mentioned by bloggers outright, they are seen in many of the actions bloggers choose to take. Recently, bloggers such as Julie Powell and Jennette Fulda have transformed the content of their blogs into books, or what the publishing industry has termed blooks. Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously (2005) and Jennette Fulda, author of Half-Assed (2008) both strategically manipulate their audiences to propel themselves to subsequent fame as established authors. Powell, who blogged about cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 2002, published a memoir about the experience 3 years later as well as a second memoir in 2009. Similarly, Jennette Fulda, who blogged about losing half her body weight through diet and exercise in 2005, published a memoir in 2008 and recently published a second memoir as well. The motivations behind the evolution of the blog to book vary from economic aspirations to a need for further fame to editors seizing an opportunity of publishing an author with a ready-made audience. Joshua Kurlantzick (2004), a writer for the New York Times, speaks to this phenomenon. He claims that bloggers are attractive to publishers due to their ready-made audience. Ian Mount, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, concurs. He writes, "Writers who turn their blogs into books have two advantages available to budding authors: an existing dedicated readership and a free platform to publicize their work" (Mount 2006, 1). While these are all possibilities, I argue another motivation may be at work: blogging authors may view the switch into the less fluid medium of the print text as an attempt to reassert authorial control.

2. The power of the audience

[2.1] The knowledge of an audience changes Powell and Fulda's blogs and books and challenges their authorship, which is reflected in how they censor themselves due to audience feedback. In her book, Powell admits, "I know, I didn't mention that I had my picture in Newsday. It's just an awkward thing to bring up. How does one broach the subject of being photographed cooking dinner in one's crappy Long Island City apartment, without sounding like a vain, pretentious jerk?" (2005, 231). Fulda's blog reflects similar censorship. She writes, "I had sometimes been scared to post entries about personal topics or controversial ideas" (2008, 169). Powell and Fulda's actions align with Rob Cover's assertions about audience participation in his 2006 article "Audience Inter/active: Interactive Media, Narrative Control and Reconceiving Audience History." According to Cover, as the reader becomes increasingly present in online media such as weblogs, the knowledge of an audience affects an author's posts because real time readership consistently offers feedback, which further shapes the direction of the posts. He posits that audience awareness results in bloggers censoring their posts, as is seen in Powell's and Fulda's confessions in their books. This move can result in a potential increase of the audience's authority over the direction of the blog and Powell's and Fulda's loss of power and authorship.

[2.2] While an audience potentially stifles posts, Cover also argues for the power of an audience to propel a narrative forward. For instance, the presence of a readership encourages Powell to cook and holds her accountable. She asserts throughout her memoir that her readers need her to post (2005, 82). Similarly, Fulda's readers encourage her to diet diligently, to lose weight, and to write about the experience. As she observes, "Now that I wasn't the only one watching my weight, I felt more responsibility to keep going" (2008, 161). She continues, "I tried to post at least three to four times a week so they'd keep coming back, which was difficult to manage while working full time and sticking to an exercise schedule" (168). The power of the audience to control the actual presence of a narrative, not just the direction of it, further complicates Powell's and Fulda's authorial status.

3. Authorial ambiguity

[3.1] Concerns surrounding authorial ambiguity call into question the very necessity of authorial attribution. According to Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author (1977), the act of imposing an author on a text limits and stifles its prospective meaning. A text consists of the compilation of multiple consciousnesses, stories, and cultures. Barthes notes that "a text's unity lies not in its origins but in its destination" (1977, 148), and his argument lends legitimacy to the role of contemporary blog readers as coauthors. The voices of the readers and the compilation of consciousnesses grant true narrative legitimacy to the blog by Barthes's standards. Fulda's posts and her readers' weight loss suggestions amalgamate to form one text that is representative of the numerous perspectives that Barthes recognizes.

[3.2] A new level of complicity arises as readers attain quasi-authorial control. When they respond to blog posts and offer advice and opinions, their readership becomes a public performance. Visible reader interaction not only influences a blogger, but becomes a part of the overall narrative. Readers' thoughts are no longer relayed in private letters to an author or editor. Instead, reader input is placed alongside an original post. This visible, highly public involvement creates a new joint artifact that grants legitimacy to readers' opinions and often accords their words with equivalent status to those of the bloggers themselves. Cover asserts that when a blogger posts online, "the author's name disappears as a plethora of anonymous sites, commentaries, knowledges and textualities emerge amidst an environment predicated on its interactivity and exchangeability" (2006, 146). If audience participation causes a blogger's name and identity to diminish, then it becomes difficult to identify the true role of Powell or Fulda aside from that of forum moderators.

[3.3] The question then becomes not if authorship should be maintained, but whether or not it can be maintained. Barthes puts forth the premise that impersonal cultural and social forces impact an individual subject's ability to claim sole authorship to a work. An active audience results in the actualization of Barthes's ideas, for it creates a situation in which personal and visible cultural and social forces affect writing. The blogosphere creates a circumstance in which an author has personal access to the cultural and social forces that shape his or her work. If power over a text lies within the amalgamation of cultures, as Barthes insists, then the combination of the voices creates a hybrid authorship reflective of the social forces that Barthes claims restrict true authorship when absent. In light of this new configuration, it becomes unclear if authorship is awarded to the original blogger, to the readers who respond to the blog, or to the combination resulting from their interactions.

4. Authorial assertion

[4.1] For Powell and Fulda, to publish is to create a more static artifact that is written in the author's voice and is not subject to immediate comments or debate. Powell and Fulda claim power over their readers when they choose which comments to include and cast their readers as characters in the book. They now direct the route of their narratives through the creation of subordinate roles for their readers that acknowledge their assistance but deny them coauthorship.

[4.2] Powell's and Fulda's actions seem contradictory as they suppress the authorial presence of their readers while simultaneously including them in their narrative. Jakki Spicer proposes a possible motivation behind this endeavor in her essay "The Author is Dead, Long Live the Author: Autobiography and the Fantasy of the Individual" (2005). Spicer explains the concept of communicable experience as an occurrence that "is not individually experienced, but is a part of a chain or flow of experience that migrates (and mutates) between experiencers" (2005, 394). Spicer argues that the individual is unimportant in terms of experience and narrative. Rather, narrative conversation and communal contribution comprise an effectively relayed story in a way that speaks to Barthes's contentions and evolves them. While Barthes celebrates the power of the reader over the author, Spicer posits that the power arises from the combination of the two. Powell's and Fulda's blog readers provided them with feedback, which is especially beneficial to a communicable experience. While the inclusion of the blog readers could potentially detract from their narrative authority, Powell and Fulda create stories based on communicable experience by referencing their readers' thoughts and contributions. In doing so, they give their readers a voice, although it is one that they themselves control.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Although the bloggers attempt to reclaim authorial control over their readers, they relinquish a significant amount of power to the editor and publisher, greater forces who now also have control over the book. The introduction of the voice of an editor now further skews the notion of authorship, with the potential to further usurp Powell and Fulda from their positions of power. Indeed, the shift from blog to book results in a new set of problems and issues for authors. The question still looms of whether a work needs authorial attribution and whether the attributed author can truly exist. The presence of an editor further confuses the attempt at a seamless compilation of voices and influences. Aside from these authorial difficulties, blooks face the vulnerability of negative blogging stereotypes and risk appearing less literary or academic than texts written by traditional authors. If theorists and scholars can look beyond this stigma, however, blooks can provide intriguing insights into the concept of communal authorship and the implications it has for the perception of singular authorial attribution.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I thank Dr. Gwen Athene Tarbox and Dr. Jon Adams of Western Michigan University for their feedback and comments.

7. Works cited

Barthes, Roland. 1977. "The Death of the Author." In Image, Music, and Text, edited by Stephen Heath, 142–48. New York: Hill and Wang.

Cover, Rob. 2006. "Audience Inter/active: Interactive Media, Narrative Control and Reconceiving Audience History." New Media Society. 8 (1): 139–58. doi:10.1177/1461444806059922.

Fulda, Jennette. 2008. Half-Assed: A Weight-Loss Memoir. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Kurlantzick, Joshua. 2004. "A New Forum (Blogging) Inspires the Old (Books)." New York Times, December 15, E1.

Mount, Ian. 2006. "Blook; A New Genre—Books Based on Blogs—Gains Ground." Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2.

Powell, Julie. 2005. Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. New York: Back Bay Books.

Spicer, Jakki. 2005. "The Author Is Dead, Long Live the Author: Autobiography and the Fantasy of the Individual." Criticism. 47 (3): 387–403. doi:10.1353/crt.2007.0003.

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